A digital gap

15199950717_95822308c4_n’Digital natives’ and ’digital immigrants’ often turn up as part of an argument about digital media, digital literacies and the use of the internet and the web in education, in everyday life, or in peoples professional lives. A few days ago I experienced it again. The two concepts have become the truth, and in many cases people don’t realize that Marc Prensky’s distinction between ‘digital natives’ (those born in the era of digital and social media) and ‘digital immigrants’ (those born before the internet and the web became part of everyday live) is a myth. And a much-criticised myth. So although Marc Prensky was right about the existence of a digital gap, a gap between people who are at ease within digital environments  and people who are not, the digital gap is not about age, as Prensky claimed, but has to do with attitude and motivation. This is the main critique against Prensky as it goes according to David White and Alison Le Cornu.

In the article “Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement” (2011) White and Le Cornu introduce the concepts “visitors” and “residents” to describe people’s engagement online and to analyse  the different ways people use tools and social media:

We propose that Visitors understand the Web as akin to an untidy garden tool shed. They have defined a goal or task and go into the shed to select an appropriate tool which they use to attain their goal. Task over, the tool is returned to shed. It may not have been perfect for the task, but they are happy to do so long as some progress is made…Ultimately to Visitors the Web is simply one of many tools they can use to achieve certain goals; it is categorized alongside the telephone, books, pen and paper and off-line software. It is not a ‘place’ to think or to develop ideas and to put it crudely, and at its most extreme, Visitors do their thinking off-line. So, Visitors are users, not members, of the Web and place little value in belonging online. (White and Le Cornu 2011:5-6).

Residents, on the other hand, see the Web as a place, perhaps like a park or a building in which there are clusters of friends and colleagues whom they can approach and with whom they can share information about their life and work. A proportion of their lives is actually lived out online where the distinction between online and off-line is increasingly blurred. Residents are happy to go online simply to spend time with others and they are likely to consider that they ‘belong’ to a commu-nity which is located in the virtual…

Residents see the Web primarily as a network of indivi-duals or clusters of individuals who in turn generate content. Value online is assessed in terms of relationships as well as knowledge. (White and Le Cornu 2011:6).

The two concepts ‘visitors’ and ‘residents’ are not to be seen as a dichotomy but as a continuum where people slide to and fro:

Our Visitors and Residents typology should be under-stood as a continuum and not a binary opposition. Individuals may be able to place themselves at a particular point along this continuum rather than in one of two boxes. Nor is a predominantly Visitor approach necessarily any less effective or of less value than a predominantly Resident approach since the value of either has to be set against a given context and set of goals. Similarly, we don’t consider the Visitor to be necessarily any less technically adept than the Resident. (White and Le Cornu 2011:6).

As Wenger (1998) has highlighted, we are all members of multiple communities and have to negotiate our roles and identities as we navigate the ‘nexus’ of communities we belong to. In a similar manner an individual’s approach to the Web is likely to change dependent on context. For example, an individual might take a Resident approach in their private life but a Visitor approach in their role as a professional.  Similarly it is not unusual for someone in a leadership role in a special interest group to manage that responsibility in a Resident style online while in a personal or professional context they choose to act as a Visitor. (White and Le Cornu 2011:7).

An extended framework

David White has been engaged in developing this first model for analyzing online engagement into a framework that sees the visitor and resident modes in relation to private and institutional contexts as well. We have to take into account, too, that context decides our mode of engagement online. In this video David White presents this extended framework and the critique of Marc Prensky’s concepts that set off the work on developing a new typology in the first place:

The question is now, what education can do about the digital gap, that started the hullabaloo? An answer could be, that since the digital gap isn’t running between generations but is an established fact across generations, the visitors – residents framework can be a basis for designing activities and teaching digital and learning literacies, so that students get the chance to develop residential modes relevant to their subjects, their disciplines and the contexts they engage in as students. So to me, students at least need to know how to:

  • be present in places/spaces online where goals and activities lead to dialogue, collaboration, cooperation, and sharing.
  • develop digital literacies relevant to their subjects, disciplines and studies through using tools and developing modes of engagement and participation while evolving civic education/civics.
  • build communities as places/spaces through connecting with individuals, groups and resources while developing participatory culture and sharing.
  • go on developing skills, competences and digital literacies to be able to take up both visitors’ and residents’ modes in the future – and in my last two blogposts I have suggested that Mozilla’s web literacies could be a place to start.

This blogpost has been edited on 25. November 2015 where two extra titles – often referenced to on this blog – were added to the reading list below.

Further reading:

Jenkins, Henry et al. (2009): Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, MacArthur, The MIT Press

Wenger, E. (2010): Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept. In Social learning systems and communities of practice (pp. 179-198), Springer London

White, D. & Le Cornu, A. (2011): Visitors and residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16(9).

Photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Alex Harbich on Flickr

Elna Mortensen

A digital gap

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